Ukrainian Museums Are Racing to Save the Country’s History
The National Museum of Lviv in western Ukraine, one of the country’s biggest museums, was able to keep its collection intact through two world wars. The museum was forced to dismantle many of its exhibits after Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24.
“For the first time since the museum was founded in 1905, all exhibition rooms are empty—all museum items are wrapped, packed and are hidden,” Ihor Kozhan, museum’s director, tells TIME over Zoom. “When you talk, you hear echoes reverberating in the empty rooms. It hurts. It’s very sad.”
But the National Museum doesn’t have to be the only museum. Museums and archives throughout the country were scrambling during weeks of Russian aggression against Ukraine to preserve artifacts, documents and other historical material.
They’ve done everything from evacuating works of art over the border to hiding objects in safe storage. They are covering monuments and statues in sandbags to prevent them being destroyed by bombings and shellings. Some museums were destroyed such as the Kuindzhi Art Museum, Mariupol, and an Ivankiv history museum, both in Ivankiv. These are located in the Kyiv Region. They protect monuments from bombing and shelling. 25 artworksMaria Primachenko, a well-known Ukrainian folk musician. Russian strikes damaged portions of Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which commemorates the Nazi German murder of over 33,000 Jews in 1941, on two occasions.
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For many institutions, “they are struggling to figure out how to protect the collections, how to move [artworks], what to hide,” says Yuliya Vaganova, director-general of the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv, home to the country’s most significant collections of Western and Asian art.
Yet, amid this conflict, the stakes of preserving Ukraine’s culture and past have never been clearer.
‘A war against our history’
On the first day of the invasion, the literary museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city, began the process of sealing windows with plywood. All of the museum’s exhibits are now in an underground shelter. Writing to TIME on March 25 while the sound of an air-raid siren blared, the museum’s director Tanya Pylypchuk described how the institution had evacuated “the most valuable part of the collection” in the first few days of the war. Those items include books, manuscripts, and documents on “the complex relations between Ukraine and Russia in the 20th century” that “show Ukraine wanted to be part of Europe, not Russia.”
“Such materials were banned in the Soviet Union,” Pylypchuk wrote. “Modern Russia also does not accept this version of Ukrainian history.”
Dozens of volunteers pack sand bags into bags at Kharkiv’s Taras Shevchenko Memorial in Kharkiv (Ukraine) on March 24, 2022. They tie the bags off, load them into bucket cranes or cherry pickers while volunteers, standing up high on sandbag walls that rise around the statues to shield them from Russian bombardment, are stacking them higher.
Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times—Getty Images
“This is a war against our history, our culture,” says Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Maiden museum in Kyiv, a history museum focused on pro-democracy efforts in Ukraine.
Poshyvailo started to assist museums in obtaining electricity generators for their collection, as well as coordinating food and water donations to museum workers that have not fled the country. Olha Honchar was the director of Territory of Terror Museum in Lviv. He also created the Museum Crisis Center as a way to raise money for workers in small regional museums. “A lot of regional museums don’t have a security system,” Honchar says.
This photo was taken on March 26, 2022. It shows a memorial to Volodymyr, the Great, enclosed in a special protective structure at Volodymyrsky Hill (Kyiv) that protects it from any possible bombardment by Russian forces.
Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket—Getty Images
“Ukrainian cultural institutions—museums, national parks, libraries, theaters—they are not military objects, not oil depots or airfields, but still they are at risk,” Mykhailo Zakopets, a director of the museum Lviv Skansen, said in an email. “We see destroyed Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and understand, that enemy’s goal is to wipe out everything that is about Ukrainian identity—the language, national culture, traditions. Our museum was created in this setting. [an] invaluable treasury of information.”
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Anatolii Khromov, the chief archivist of Ukraine, who oversees the country’s network of more than 200 archives, tells TIME that the Russians burned down the archive for Ukrainian Security Service in Chernihiv, which housed more than 12,000 folders about the KGB and the repression of the Ukrainian population by the Soviet regime in the 20th century.
According to him, the Ukrainian archives system needs funding for underground storage facilities to preserve documents. He has also signed an online storage agreement to protect selected documents with the National Archives of the United Kingdom. As Khromov describes the value of the country’s archives, “It’s not just Ukrainian history. It’s world history.”
Backup of the past
And it’s not just physical objects that museums and archives need to protect. There are a couple of ongoing efforts in the U.S. to help scholars in Ukraine back up their research online and archive websites related to the country’s history in case there are cyberattacks or researchers’ homes are bombed.
The American Folklore Society is helping Ukrainian scholars upload their research—including songs, photographs, and videos recording dances and Ukrainian festivals and celebrations— to a Google Drive site. One U.S.-based program called Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, (SUCHO) has more than 1300 volunteers around the world and nearly 15,000 files that have been uploaded to Internet Archive. Volunteers are producing replicas of museum websites—and in some cases, this work comes in the nick of time. A team, for instance, worked night and day to restore the website of the Kharkiv state archive.
“A website might be one of the only [pieces of] evidence that something existed and belonged to this museum, so this could potentially be evidence in future prosecutions for looting, for destruction of cultural heritage,” says Quinn Dombrowski, SUCHO co-founder and an academic technology specialist at Stanford University.
And Honchar is already thinking about the next big task for museums: telling the story of Russia’s war against Ukraine to future generations.
“Now the priority is to survive and save [museums’] collection,” she says, “but after the win, we have a lot of work to do to document this war in Ukraine.”
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